Brad Johnson

Saves and Steals

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2018 All Bullpen Review

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Football season is coming to a close, and that means it's time to dive into fantasy baseball. Over the next seven weeks, Saves and Steals will cover every bullpen in gory detail. Today is the All Bullpen Audit, a high level analysis of all would-be closers and their most likely usurpers. Beginning next week, we'll do a division-by-division dive into every team's relief squad. For now, let's 86 the “steals” component of the column. We'll get back to those closer to the start of the season.


Free Agents


Greg Holland, Tyler Clippard, Joaquin Benoit, Matt Belisle, Jeanmar Gomez, Jason Grilli, Jason Motte, Bud Norris, Seung-hwan Oh, Chad Qualls, Bruce Rondon, Sergio Romo, Drew Storen, Huston Street, Trevor Rosenthal, Koji Uehara, Kevin Siegrist, and Tony Watson


I won't regale you with tales of the slow free agent market. You can find plenty of that copiously scattered throughout the internet. Here's the short version: not many free agents have signed. Relievers are the one position that has seen considerable movement, and yet I was still able to construct a list of 18 pitchers with (mostly) recent closer experience. We can dismiss most of these names as middle relievers, but a few could sneak into save opportunities.


The most obvious of those is Holland. The former Royals and Rockies closer pitched well in his return from Tommy John surgery, accruing 41 saves, a 3.61 ERA, 10.99 K/9, and 4.08 BB/9 – all with Coors Field as his home park. Just like the pre-injury version of Holland, he relied on his slider. He's basically the current iteration of Brad Lidge. Since he's still a free agent, teams must be worrying about his dreadful August. Over an eight outing span, he allowed 14 runs and four home runs in 6.1 innings while walking six. Prior to the blip, he had a 1.56 ERA in 40.1 innings. After August 26, he recovered to finish with a 1.69 ERA in 10.2 innings. Most of his season was superb. Somebody will sign him – probably to close.


A couple former Cardinals closers also stand out. Alas, Rosenthal will miss the 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Oh somehow lost his feel for inducing an elite swinging strike rate. The weird part is that I can't point to a reason why. He appears to have used the exact same stuff in the exact same way. A team could take a chance on him as a rebound candidate and be pleasantly surprised.


Norris and Watson are probably the next most likely free agents to snake a few saves. Like Oh, they'll first have to perform before being given the opportunity. Norris is likely to sign as a swing man – he gave up a performance bonus last season to demonstrate his ability to start. Watson will probably be treated as a left-handed setup man. Both should have no issue finding jobs. A few of the others will be forcibly retired for lack of opportunity.


NL East


Washington Nationals: Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Brandon Kintzler, Koda Glover

New York Mets: Jeurys Familia, A.J. Ramos, Anthony Swarzak

Philadelphia Phillies: Hector Neris, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter

Miami Marlins: Brad Ziegler, Kyle Barraclough, Drew Steckenrider

Atlanta Braves: Arodys Vizcaino


Thanks to a couple mid-season trades, the Nationals have the deepest bullpen in the NL East. Doolittle is a superb closer when healthy, although he has battled shoulder issues over the years. At his best, he'll provide over 10.00 K/9, a low walk rate, and somewhere around a 3.00 ERA. His fly ball tendencies probably aren't ideal for a closer, but he can still push top ten value.


If anything happens to Doolittle, Madson has plenty of closing experience. Last season, he posted similar numbers to Doolittle while inducing a 54.7 percent ground ball rate. There's a case to be made that he should be the closer. Kintzler serves as depth while Glover may eventually grow into the role. They still have Shawn Kelley hanging around too.


The back end of the Mets bullpen could devolve into a free-for-all. Familia struggled with his command in 2017 after missing time to a domestic abuse suspension and a blood clot. He still had the same quality stuff that led to 51 saves in 2016, including a 96 mph fastball, over a strikeout per inning, and a 60 percent ground ball rate. Allowing 5.47 BB/9 generally doesn't work. If his command returns, he's a potential top 10 closer. Lurking in the wings are Ramos and Swarzak. While Ramos has 99 saves to his name, Swarzak appears to be the better reliever. Swarzak in particular could be a top holds option.


The Phillies have tidied up their bullpen in anticipation of a heavy workload. The rotation is a bit of a hodgepodge which means lots of short outings. The back end is designed to shut down opponents. Neris can be inconsistent with his premium splitter, and his fastball is merely an average offering. His isn't an ideal closer profile, but he'll serve as a fine steward until one of their many prospects pushes him aside. Neshek and Hunter are probably capable of handling the ninth inning, but they're better suited to setup roles. The Phillies actually have a shockingly solid offense so they should supply more saves and holds opportunities this year. Francisco Rodriguez is a dark horse candidate for a rebound campaign. He's signed to a minor league contract.


I consistently rate Ziegler among the worst closers in the league, yet he's outlasted many better names. I don't actually believe he'll still be with the Marlins come Opening Day. For fantasy purposes, his low strikeout rate and occasional platoon issues can hurt his owners. Miami is also poised to win the fewest games in the league. On the plus side, he has an elite ground ball rate. Barraclough was supposed to steal the job last season. His lack of command continues to be a problem. Steckenrider's stuff doesn't match the gaudy 14.02 K/9 he posted last season. Expect regression.


The Braves bullpen is a stinking heap. Vizcaino is a fine closer, but there are no obvious setup men to support him. He also has a long track record with injuries. Vizcaino's stuff is inconsistent year-to-year so he could range from borderline top 15 value to one of the worst in the league. He might be hurting for save opportunities. Atlanta is a prime candidate to sign a slew of those older free agent relievers with closing experience. Were I Alex Anthopoulos, I'd look to land Oh, Watson, and Norris on cheap contracts.


NL Central


Milwaukee Brewers: Corey Knebel, Jacob Barnes

Pittsburgh Pirates: Felipe Rivero, Daniel Hudson

Cincinnati Reds: Raisel Iglesias, David Hernandez, Michael Lorenzen

Chicago Cubs: Brandon Morrow, Steve Cishek, Justin Wilson, Carl Edwards Jr.

St. Louis Cardinals: Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil


Last season, Knebel emerged as one of the best relievers in the game. His profile is comparable to vintage Craig Kimbrel – before he magically stopped walking people last season. If things go sideways for Knebel, his 4.74 BB/9 will probably be to blame. With a 1.78 ERA and 14.92 K/9, he's a fantasy monster. Barnes flashed a fringe closer skill set by combining a 10.00 K/9 with 53 percent ground ball rate. Unfortunately, he was quite homer prone. Jeremy Jeffress and Josh Hader could play big roles.


Rivero is the other candidate for top closer in the NL Central. Like Knebel, his supporting cast isn't particularly noteworthy. Rivero has emerged as a top left-handed pitcher, featuring 98.5 mph heat, a 1.67 ERA, 10.51 K/9, 2.39 BB/9, and 52 percent ground ball rate. His stuff could easily support more strikeouts. Hudson is a nearly 31-year-old middle reliever. Recent acquisitions Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz could factor into the late-inning formula. Musgrove was elite as a reliever last season, but he'll be tried as a starter in Spring Training.


Iglesias posted comparable numbers to Rivero last season despite playing half his games at homer friendly Great American Ballpark. In 76 innings, he tallied 10.89 K/9, 3.20 BB/9, and a 2.49 ERA. The Reds like to use him as a multi-inning reliever which cut into his saves total. Hernandez and Lorenzen are both inconsistent. Lorenzen in particular suffers from homeritis.


The Cubs feature a deep if slightly unsettled bullpen. For the moment, Morrow is the nominal closer despite not closing out a regular season game since 2009. He experienced one of the most stunning breakout seasons, posting a 2.06 ERA, 10.31 K/9, and 1.85 BB/9 while leaning on a 97.7 mph fastball. Cishek remains an effective reliever despite some notable struggles as a closer. He should be viewed as a quality holds candidate. Wilson puzzlingly couldn't throw strikes after a mid-season swap to the Cubs. He's usually an effective full-inning left-handed reliever. Fantasy owners view Edwards as a future closer, but he relies a little too much on freakishly low BABIPs for me to fully jump on the bandwagon with both feet. His command could use improvement.


The Cardinals are a prime candidate to sign Holland. Gregerson is a perfectly able patch for the ninth inning, but a contender should be looking for more. Cecil was useful during his first season with St. Louis. He's also best used as a setup reliever.


NL West


Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen, Scott Alexander

San Diego Padres: Brad Hand, Kirby Yates

San Francisco Giants: Mark Melancon, Sam Dyson

Colorado Rockies: Wade Davis, Adam Ottavino, Jake McGee

Arizona Diamondbacks: Brad Boxberger, Archie Bradley


The last time I wrote this post, I called Jansen the “reincarnation of Mariano Rivera.” Yep. The righty had his finest season to date, recording a 1.32 ERA, 14.36 K/9, and 0.92 BB/9. Everybody knows the cutter is coming. It's still unhittable. Alexander, acquired in an offseason trade with the Royals, has middling fantasy numbers and an elite 73.8 percent ground ball rate. He's basically Zach Britton with lesser command.


Hand is a stud. He's also one of the most often used relievers of the last two seasons. He's combined for 168.2 innings across 154 appearances. Nobody pitched more relief innings. Only Addison Reed had more appearances. A high workload can lead to injury. That said, Hand has shown no signs of slowing down. He even improved his command last year en route to a 2.16 ERA, 11.80 K/9, and 2.27 BB/9. Yates has emerged as an extreme fly ball pitcher with an elite swinging strike rate. Unfortunately the frequent fly balls were coupled with 1.91 HR/9 – not ideal for a late-inning reliever.


Melancon battled forearm discomfort last season, opening the door for Dyson to rebound from his terrible collapse in Texas. Prior to the injury, Melancon was the league leader in appearances and relief innings from 2013 to 2016 – a lesson that even the most durable pitchers can break. The Giants are hopeful he'll be healthy to start the season. Although he pitched to a 4.50 ERA in 30 innings, Melancon showed a typically solid 8.70 K/9 and 1.80 BB/9. Dyson is a ground ball specialist who struggled throughout the 2017 campaign. If he recovers his command, he could be a decent holds asset. A low strikeout rate kills his fantasy upside.


The Rockies opted to move on from Holland. Instead, they've turned to his former teammate. Davis continues to lean on a high quality cutter. The rarefied air at Coors Field can hurt fastball movement and may increase injury risk. Davis has a recent history of forearm discomfort which can be a precursor to a UCL injury. I'm still a huge fan of Ottavino, although he'll need to rediscover the elite ground ball stuff he had in 2016. McGee and Bryan Shaw could rack up holds.


After successfully getting away with using Fernando Rodney as their closer, the Diamondbacks are reportedly planning to use Boxberger as their closer. Even at his best, the righty was more of a placeholder than a legitimate ninth inning guy. Fortunately, they have a superb alternative in the form of Bradley, but they've committed to stretching him out in Spring Training. Arizona has a full rotation. Barring injury, Bradley will be back in high leverage innings.


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You can read more from Brad Johnson on Rotoworld, FanGraphs, and RotoBaller. Find him on Patreon and Twitter @BaseballATeam.
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